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Jalen Ngonda on his debut album 'Come Around and Love Me'


Jalen Ngonda's music brings us back to a time when pop tunes were filled with soul. His songs teem with longing and appreciation for that special human being that's at the center of a song.


JALEN NGONDA: (Singing) Please give a sign that I am yours and you are mine. Don't keep me guessin' about others before. Oh, come 'round and love me.

SIMON: The native of Washington, D.C., is out with his debut album. It's called "Come Around And Love Me." Jalen Ngonda now lives in Liverpool. He came back home to join us in the studio. Thank you so much for being with us.

NGONDA: Thank you.

SIMON: How did you develop your sound?

NGONDA: Well, you always develop something when you don't know you're developing it, you know?

SIMON: Yeah.

NGONDA: I didn't wake up and say, I'm going to develop this sound. I just grew up, ages 11 till to this day - I've been living as someone who just loves all types of music, but particularly music from the '60s. And as I'm growing as a person and a musician and writing, you know, I - that sound and everything's going to reflect on my writing.

SIMON: Well, I love the way it sounds. Let me ask you about the song and title track...


SIMON: ..."Come Around And Love Me." All of us come around and love you? What?

NGONDA: No. You know, this song is not aimed at anyone specifically. It's just rhyming schemes, you know? It's like - you know, like, when you write, you just try to find rhymes.

SIMON: The album begins with a song about a singer interested in someone else. And then the song seemed to follow a storyline of two people who - not giving anything away - do become involved. You're trying to put together a kind of - start to finish - an endurance love story...

NGONDA: Not really.

SIMON: ...On this album?

NGONDA: No structure, you know? It's - a lot of those records that you hear now, like, you know, the - from trap to rap to rock to EDM, they're all love songs, too, unless they're just talking about money.

SIMON: That's a kind of love song for some people. But I take your point.

NGONDA: Yeah, which is a love song for a lot of people. But...

SIMON: Yeah.

NGONDA: ...You know, they all write - we all write of the same thing. We write about who we're into, whether they are there and if they're going to call you again. I think it's just paid attention more with soul music 'cause of the sort of image it has, you know, like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke and the Marvin Gayes. They wrote the most beautiful love songs. So when you think of soul, you think of love songs. So I'm really just writing a song. And I think love is a topic because we all - not all of us have money and riches, and not all of us have, say, problems that are significant, but we all have love. And I think that's why it's so easy to write a love song.

SIMON: Yeah. Let's listen to a little of your song "If You Don't Want My Love."


NGONDA: (Singing) Keeps us close and keep us dear, not just today but every year. You were made to be a focus in my mind. But if you don't want my love and if you want somethin' more, said if you never wanted my love, let me know, oh.

SIMON: If you don't want my love, let me know. Boy. Very much classical soul here. Is that what songs can do sometimes, give us the way to say things that are difficult to bring out of ourselves?

NGONDA: I think so, yeah. Depends on the person in the situation. I think when it comes to something, if it's a deep love or a deep feeling, it's hard to bring it out because you treasure and you hold it so much, because if you feel like if you let it out and show someone else that side of you, you could get hurt.

SIMON: I've got to tell you, if my opinion's worth anything, I do hear a suggestion of Sam Cooke - which, by the way, no higher compliment - and Mary Wells.

NGONDA: Sam Cooke and Mary Wells, they both grew up in church...

SIMON: Yeah.

NGONDA: ...In the Black church. So, like, Mary Wells, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield to Marvin Gaye to - there's hundreds of singers to list - Percy Sledge - they all grew up in the church where they were singing in a certain way and a certain style. And so I think you can compare all those soul singers together because it's a - it's just a way of singing. But that's the way of singing that I've listened to the most. I'm going to sound like that, too, probably, just in my own way.

SIMON: What do you think you learned from some of your listening to great artists of the past?

NGONDA: Well, I mean, I've just learned how these songs get crafted. I feel like in terms of in life, like, if I learned anything from my own peace of mind and well-being, I feel like a song can show you the ways of love or whatever, but you learn that stuff in real life. I was not equipped for heartache by listening to heartbreak songs, you know? It was because I got my heart broken by someone in the past. But what I've learned from these songs is it's - we keep saying it's a universal language - and I guess I learned that it's these love songs that make hits.

SIMON: Let me ask you about a song, "What A Difference She Made."

What a Difference She Made

NGONDA: (Singing) There's a girl with curly hair, high-shine shoes and rainbow flares. There's a girl with a dimple smile that blind men can see from a country mile. Like waking up in the summer to a distant sun above, she came to me, and she gave me love.

SIMON: Well, what are we hearing here in this story?

NGONDA: It could be about anything you want it to be. I just created something by borrowing things I've witnessed in life, you know? But I don't know anyone with rainbow flares. I don't - I have a couple of female friends with curly hair. But I'm not singing about them specifically. Whenever I write a song, I don't know, I have no idea what I'm going to write about. And what I write about is just what comes out.

SIMON: So you just sit down and say, I'm going to turn out a song?

NGONDA: Well, yeah. And it doesn't come out magically. Like, I don't just sit there and it - I will always think of something. I do struggle some - well, a lot - most of the time I struggle. And it's just finding the best thing you can possibly find. Sorry. I mean, you're just asking, what's this story about? I'm over here talking about songwriting 101.

SIMON: No, it's fine. No.

NGONDA: (Laughter).

SIMON: It's fine. We could all stand to know more about that (inaudible).

NGONDA: Yeah. But the song is - it is a story that I did - at one point, I was like, this is sounding like a story. So I kept it as a story, and it's just a nice story.

SIMON: Yeah. When you released this record, you wrote, it is love that keeps us together, especially when expressed through sound.


SIMON: How is music that kind of language for you?

NGONDA: I think music is probably among the greatest things that humans have invented, 'cause, you know, it didn't have to be invented. We could have just lived this - like the rest of the animals on the earth, you know? They just live, and they hear sounds, and they try to survive. I feel like it's hard to explain. And we try to explain it through other artists and other genres. But music has this weird effect on people where if I were to stand in an elevator and start whistling a popular song, say, "Hey Ya!" or something, people are going to probably be like, I love that song, you know, or snap their fingers. That togetherness through music or a sound is love 'cause that's the only time where you're not thinking about anything about somebody. You know, you're not thinking about what they look like, what they're religious or political or whatever beliefs are. All you heard was a nice little whistle of a nice melody, and you felt joy inside for - even if it's for a fragment of a second. So that's what I meant when I said it's love that brings us together, especially when it's through sound, because it's that familiarity of it.


NGONDA: (Singing) So glad I found you. So glad you're mine. And I've got to say, I'm so glad…

SIMON: Jalen Ngonda, his new record, "Come Around And Love Me," out now. Thanks so much for being with us.

NGONDA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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